TBR Challenge: Breaking the Kearsley Barrier

This month’s theme for the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy was Recommended Reads. And so I finally, finally, read a book that has been recommended, both in general and to me personally, by almost everyone I know in Romanceland: Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea.

So many people know this book that I’m not bothering with a proper review. If you chance to be someone who didn’t recommend this book to me and haven’t read it, here’s Sunita’s review. And here are my scattered thoughts:

I think I’ve learned how the TBR Challenge will work for me: not cleaning out the dregs, but getting to those books I really want to read but have somehow been hesitating to start. I think I hesitated with this one because “everyone” loves it so. What if I didn’t? I was afraid to tell anyone what book I’d chosen. I liked it a lot; I can imagine reading it again; I look forward to reading more from Kearsley. But it’s not my new favorite book ever.

Things I Liked:

  • The Scottish setting, beautifully described. The light touch with dialect–enough to give a flavor, but not overwhelming. The evocation of setting is where I think Kearsley really earns the comparisons to Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier. Plus there is something kind of old-fashioned feeling about her story-telling, and I mean that as a compliment. I’m not sure I can explain it: I guess because it’s a very good story, very well written and told. It’s not that easy to find books that feel this solid in terms of their craft.
  • The deft balance between the contemporary plot and the historical one. The historical story is intense–political intrigue, a seemingly doomed romance, threats of various kinds. The contemporary plot, about the writer researching this history, sharing her ancestor’s memories of it, and creating her novel out of that history and memory, is much quieter. Kearsley uses the narrative of Carrie’s research and her conversations with various people about the past to convey a lot of the historical context, so it doesn’t have to slow down her historical plot, which is almost all high notes. The interweaving keeps that from being too intense.
  • The reflections on the writing process. Part of Carrie’s book comes from meticulous historical research, part from what she gradually comes to believe are her ancestor Sophia’s memories. This worked best for me when I thought of it as a metaphor for the un- or sub-conscious parts of writing, where something seems to write through you, which I have experienced even writing academic papers. I liked the way Carrie semi-consciously uses and reworks parts of people she knows or incidents in her life in her novel. It’s much less developed than the way Jenny works out personal conflicts through the soap opera she’s writing in Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again, but reminded me a bit of that.
  • Really strong characterization. These people felt real to me, both their strengths and their flaws. I cared about what happened to them all.
  • Nice use of imagery, like the chess game and the way Sophia’s chess-playing reflects her real-life concern for “pawns.”

Why I Didn’t Adore It:

  • Possibly I just wasn’t in the right mood. I was a bit scattered last week and I found it slow to get into and sometimes hard to concentrate on (though at others I was gripped).
  • The biggest stumbling block was that it seemed a little too tidily patterned to me. Sometimes I felt I could see the gears turning and wasn’t caught up in the illusion. I guessed how the historical plot would work out very early on–though I don’t think that’s a real weakness because I still found it suspenseful. Possibly any dual timeline plot like this would suffer for me in comparison with A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which is doing very different things from this book, so that comparison isn’t fair.
  • I just couldn’t buy the idea of genetic memory: “Well, memory’s complicated, and genes are complicated, so maybe you could have your ancestor’s memories.” I would have found it easier to suspend disbelief in a straight-up “she’s got The Sight” explanation, though I was also grateful to Kearsley for not going with that Celtic Character Cliché. (I’m contrary like that).

Now that I’ve broken the barrier, I think I’ll be free to just relax and enjoy the next Kearsley book I read. Fortunately, I have three more in my TBR.

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24 Responses to TBR Challenge: Breaking the Kearsley Barrier

  1. So glad to see your review! It’s been in my TBR pile approximately forever, along with most of her other books, but I’ve been afraid to start reading it for fear of over-hype and disappointment. A nicely balanced review. Very helpful!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      We readers tie ourselves into such odd psychological knots! I find it very hard to come to a book with so much context of other readers’ opinions. I’m not sure any book could ever have lived up to the “everyone loves this” hype (sadly, that somehow sends me straight to picking holes–“well, this bit isn’t that great”).

      But Kearsley’s writing is so strong that I don’t think a book of hers could ever feel like a waste of time, either; I wasn’t disappointed in it, and enjoyed the reading experience very much.

  2. lawless says:

    I also liked this rather than loving it, but it’s so different from what else is out there that it didn’t matter to me. Of the three books of hers I read — this, Shadowy Horses, and Splendour Falls — I liked Splendour Falls the best.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it is really different, and I appreciated that too. I think that’s part of what I mean by “old-fashioned.” I can think of lots of books from decades ago (Stewart, du Maurier, Victoria Holt maybe) that I could compare this to, but not much written today. And yet, people still love and seek out those older writers, so I’m surprised we don’t get more books in that tradition.

  3. lynnaar says:

    Yay! You read it. I’m not sure I can say I LOVED this book, but I certainly liked it a lot. The Firebird is a sequel of sorts and that one I did love. If it’s one of the other Kearsleys in your TBR, I definitely recommend it.

  4. Barb in Maryland says:

    Yay! I’m glad you liked it. It took me three tries to get into it–the mood thing, definitely. But I had loved all of her stuff (to that point) so I wasn’t going to give up on it–I just put it aside. Then one day, I just clicked with it and gobbled it down!
    I think my favorite is The Shadowy Horses. I find it to be very Mary Stewart-ish and that is a very good thing, IMHO.
    I see they are finally getting around to re-issuing Named of the Dragon in the US (in Oct!). I have very fond memories of that one.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love that people are recommending different favorites. I feel I have so much to look forward to.

      It took me at least 50 pp. to be well and truly hooked by this one, so I’m grateful to the Challenge, which kept me at it until the hook was set.

  5. sonomalass says:

    That old-fashioned quality of lush prose and easy pacing is part of why I love her books. I just sink into them like a big featherbed and luxuriate. The Jacobite ones are particularly appealing to me, but I’ve liked them all. Shadowy Horses and Firebird are more straight-up psychic powers/magical realism, which I admit I was more comfortable with than genetic memory. But oh, I loved the romance in this book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it’s lovely writing. She’s not afraid to slow down and describe things. And yet it’s not really “flowery”–her style really suits me. Maybe the descriptive detail–of things like setting–is part of what felt “old-fashioned” to me. A lot of genre romance doesn’t do that much now, except for clothes and bodies.

      • sonomalass says:

        Her books are very much about place, and her descriptions are amazing. The feel of each place is strong, both in language and in the integral relationship of setting to plot.

        Now I need to re-read something.

  6. Sunita says:

    You liked it! \o/

    This is still my favorite of all Kearsley’s books, although I’ve enjoyed them all and would unreservedly recommend her entire backlist. I came to this book cold, not knowing anything about her or the book. It was an ARC at DA in the first year I was reviewing and it sounded intriguing. I still remember turning to TheHusband and saying OMG this is so good. You have to read it. He did, and now he’s read and liked most of her books too. I think it was the combination of pitch-perfect historical romantic fiction and a quieter contemporary story that complemented and enhanced it. If both of the stories at operated at the same level of intensity I don’t think it would have worked as well.

    I agree with all your points, for and against. I think that what makes a book The One versus just a really good read is part of the alchemy between text and reader. I hope you have The Firebird in your TBR too; that brings this and The Shadowy Horses.

    • Sunita says:

      Argh. Typos/mistyping galore. Just fixing the important one: The Firebird brings The Winter Sea and The Shadowy Horses together.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I absolutely agree about the intensity. I started looking forward to the “break” that the modern story would bring, even though I was desperate to know what happened in the past. I thought that balance and pacing was so well done.

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    It’s so much fun to read a book that many of you have already read. I really feel part of a community at these moments! Thanks for all the comments.

    The Kearsley I have in my TBR, some because of sales, right now: Mariana, The Rose Garden, The Shadowy Horses. The only reason I don’t have The Firebird is because I told myself I had to stop buying her books until I had actually read one of them! Now I’m off that hook, but I have to wait until Lent is over.

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      I really liked the Mariana. I read it on Sunita’s recommendation and it was one my Best Books of that year. Such beauty in her writing–you get this sense of space and height. Does that make sense?

    • Barb in Maryland says:

      Mariana is very DuMaurier–and a stand alone. The Rose Garden is great time-travel and also a stand alone. You really need to read The Shadowy Horses before you read The Firebird, as the boy character in SH is the modern hero in Firebird.
      So you can space those three out over Lent and then treat yourself to The Firebird for Easter. Easy-peasy.

  8. azteclady says:

    I confess that, while I have at least one Kearsey in my possession, I have read nothing of hers–the hype, it scares me! Because I cannot help but think I’ll be the one reader who no only fail to rave, but will virulently dislike it.

    Of course, that’s how I ended up reading Lord of Scoundrels for this month’s challenge, so perhaps soon…

  9. anacoqui says:

    This was my #TBRChallenge book too! Initially I resisted the pacing of the book, but once I let myself stop looking at the percentage I was much happier.

    The genetic memory thing didn’t work for me either. But I just let it go, because it worked for Carrie.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve been working a lot on regaining my concentration for longer and slower-paced books, and that helped. I think I’d picked this up once or twice before, read a few pages, and given up. By the end I was desperate to keep going.

      • Sunita says:

        I don’t think it’s *just* concentration, although that’s clearly part of it. I’ve found that when I’m reading longer books and books that aren’t centrally within the romance genre, I’m slower to fall into them. I picked up a category yesterday and was engaged from the first page. But the book I read before that took a couple of reading sessions before I was at the must-turn-the-page point. I think that when I read disproportionately in a genre, whether it’s romance of something else, the opening pages are familiar enough in style and approach that it’s like a warm blanket. When a book is outside my default reading zone (whatever that is at the time), it takes longer.

        And some books just take longer to engage you anyway. It’s the opposite of the first-page approach; you have to stick with it and trust the author to draw you in.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, that’s a really good point. The re-setting of expectations takes some work.

          This isn’t a perfect comparison by any means, but it’s a little like how early reader book series (e.g. Magic Treehouse) always start in the same way. It’s aggravating for an adult reading/listening, but it really helps new readers learn to pick up on textual cues. I’m not suggesting genre fiction is that formulaic, but it does ease us in. In romance, I’m always thinking “OK, what’s the set-up here? hero, heroine, situation, main trope?” but Kearsley’s book doesn’t start with a romance set-up.

  10. kaetrin says:

    They’re great on audio as well. I think her prose and pacing suits the audio dynamic really well and she has been blessed with excellent narrators.

    My favourites are The Winter Sea, The Shadowy Horses, The Firebird, Mariana and A Desperate Fortunate (not out until April) – with the latter 3 equal third. I liked The Splendour Falls but it is more a mystery than a romance and given that I mainly read for romance it was not as successful for me. I knew going in that TSF wasn’t as romancey so I was prepared to like it for what it was (and I did) but I think it’s an important distinction from the other books I’ve mentioned.

    I’m glad you liked it!

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